selfinterest argued by Mauss, is played down.

selfinterest that motivated them, for instance, the
pharmaceutical industry offering golf weekends to GPs and their partners,
concluded by a light scientific programme on the advantages of certain
pharmaceutical products. Particularly, the larger business gifts are on the
brink of bribe. Money gifts may be used for all kinds of dubitable aims: as
hush or redemption money, or as a means to obtain certain societal or political
gains. Fiske’s relational model of the ‘market’ covers the motives of gifts
given in this spirit.


The Principle

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In the modern gift literature two ways of looking at the
gift can be distinguished: an anti-utilitarian and a utilitarian view. Caillé
(2000), founder of La Revue du MAUSS (Mouvement Anti-Utilitariste en Sciences
Sociales), is a representative of the first approach. He objects to an overly
economized view of society, encountered in certain branches of social science
such as rational choice theory, and emphasizes the theoretical potential of the
gif t to serve as a paradigm for a critical understanding of contemporary
society. In a similar vein, Godbout (1992) emphasizes how important aspects of
human relationships such as forgiveness, love, respect, dignity, compassion are
fostered by the gift. Calculation and reciprocity are not central to the gift,
according to him. From the anti-utilitarian perspective, the freedom of the gif
t is seen as one of its main characteristics, whereas the idea that gifts are
fundamentally caught in a cycle of reciprocity, as had so convincingly been
argued by Mauss, is played down. Similarly, in some deconstructionist
approaches to the gift, attempts at recompense or reciprocity are seen as
destroying the possibility of a ‘genuine gift’ (Derrida, 1991); implicit is the
idea that real gifts are truly altruistic and are, or should be, ‘unspoiled’ by
expectations or acts of reciprocity. Finally, Alan Schrift, in his collection
of classical and modern essays on the gif t, argues that ‘a narrowly
self-interested notion of reciprocal return’ (Schrift, 1997: 19) has come to
dominate the current discourse on giving, and advocates viewing the gift as a
potential ethic of generosity.


In the ‘utilitarian’ approach, assumptions of rational
actors weighing their preferences according to some utility are predominant. In
this mainly economical tradition, researchers attempt to unravel the enigmas
with which the phenomenon of gift-giving is confronting them: gifts are
‘inefficient’ (e.g. givers buy goods different from those receivers would
like), and gift-giving cannot be explained by the mere maximizing of one’s
self-interest. Stark (1995) argues that motives to give can range from pure
altruism to pure selfinterest. People care not only about their own material
payoffs, but also about such things as fairness, equity and reciprocity (Fehr
and Gächter, 2000; Thomas and Worrall, 2002). Social (non-selfish) preferences
and context-dependent factors have to be taken into account when explaining the
gift (Fehr and Smith, 1999; Henrich et al., 2004; Sobel, 2005). Gifts can be
seen as economic signals and social symbols (Camerer, 1988). It is interesting
to see that insights already firmly established within the fields of
anthropology (such as the range of motives to give) and sociology (for example,
the contextual dependency and symbolic signal-functions of the gift) are
gradually being rediscovered by economists.


In the first, anti-utilitarian approach, reciprocity is
opposed to the freedom of genuine gifts and real generosity. The economists’
approach investigates the nature of the preferences of the actors involved in
reciprocal exchange but fails to provide an analysis why the principle of
reciprocity is so effective. Here I would like to attempt such an explanation.
There are (at least) five elements in the principle of reciprocity that
determine its effectiveness: (1) the survival value of gift-giving; (2) the
recognition of the other implied in reciprocity; (3) the three obligations
involved in it; (4) the morally binding character of reciprocity; and (5) the
fact that reciprocity combines generosity and self-interest.


At the beginning of this article, I pointed at the survival
value of giftgiving highlighted in the quotation by Lévi-Strauss. As Mary
Douglas has stated in her foreword to the English translation of Mauss’s essay,
the theory of the gift is a theory of human solidarity. Human solidarity is
deeply founded in the idea that it is in the collective interest of all to
cooperate and exchange services and gifts with others (Komter, 2005). The survival
value of gift-giving can most clearly be witnessed in studies of animal
behaviour. Primatologist Frans de Waal (1996) describes the workings of the
principle of reciprocity in a community of chimpanzees. Chimps share and
exchange food and groom one another on the basis of this principle: those who
deviate from the rule by not grooming others or sharing food with them, will
not be groomed or allowed to participate in food-sharing practices themselves.
They are, so to speak, excommunicated, which is obviously disadvantageous for
their survival chances. Evolutionary biologists such as Trivers (1971) and
Dawkins (1976) have analysed the evolutionary advantages of so-called
reciprocal altruism. Among animals as well as humans, altruistic behaviour
serves the preservation of the members of the species because it is
reciprocated by similar behaviour displayed by others. In the words of the
psychologist Ronald Cohen: ‘Because giving is such an adaptive feature for the
maintenance of social life, it is so ubiquitous among human societies’ (Cohen,
1978: 96).


A second aspect of the principle of reciprocity is its
implicit assumption of the recognition of the other person as a potential ally.
The social and cultural system on which archaic societies were based rested on
the mutual acceptance of the other as partner in gift exchange. Recognition of
the other as a human being proves to be an essential precondition for the
coming into being of patterns of exchange. Without recognition of the person
and his or her identity, no reciprocal exchange is possible. The significance
of recognition of the other is echoed in the accounts of both classical and
contemporary thinkers. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith developed
some views on the mirroring of the imaginary viewpoints of the other in our own
minds (Smith, 2002). These internalized others serve as the basis of our moral
sensitivity. In the 20th century, similar ideas were elaborated upon by George
Herbert Mead (1962). Similarly, in Hannah Arendt’s view (1978) adoption of the
plurality of other people’s viewpoints in our own minds is the only way to
transcend our own, interest-driven self and the limitations of our own
judgement. Recognition of the humanity of self and other is tantamount to
recognition of the interdependency of self and other, and interdependency is
the basis for social bonds and human solidarity. For the recognition of
humanity implies that other people’s needs and their mutual dependency for the
fulfilment of these needs are recognized. More recently, the German social
philosopher Honneth (1992) analyses reciprocity as an issue of recognition. In
order to be able to feel self-respect, people need the respect and regard of
others. Also Habermas (1989) regards identity as the result of processes of
mutual recognition, and reciprocal recognition as a basic assumption underlying
social ties and solidarity. According to him, the basic principles of modern
solidarity are not fundamentally different from the mutual expectations of
reciprocity existing in premodern societies.


A third core aspect of the reciprocity principle is manif
ested in Mauss’s famous statement about the three obligations: the obligation
to give, the obligation to receive and the obligation to reciprocate. The
principle of reciprocity is succinctly symbolized in this threefold obligation.
As Mauss has pointed out, to refuse to give, to fail to invite, but also to
refuse to accept, is tantamount to declaring war. It is not the refusal of the
object itself, but the rejection of the bond of alliance that is at stake here.
As long as the recipient of a gift has not given back, the giver holds a
certain power over the recipient. This power is equivalent to ‘the spirit of
the gift’. This spirit is believed to wish to return to the original giver. The
thing given is invested with life and seeks to return to its place of origin.
Things circulating in the hands of men and women are the constituents of the
principle of reciprocity. As a consequence of these obligations, a perpetual
cycle of exchanges is set up within and between generations. Social ties are
created, sustained and strengthened by means of reciprocal gifts. These acts of
gift exchange are at the basis of human solidarity.


A fourth aspect, implied in the third one, is the morally
binding character of reciprocity. The three obligations are not enforced by
some external power, but are internalized moral duties. Having received a gift
causes a feeling of gratitude to arise, and gratitude can be considered the
moral force that brings us to return the gift (Komter, 2005). In his article
‘Faithfulness and Gratitude’, Simmel argues that all contacts among human
beings rest on the scheme of giving and returning the equivalence, and that a
large part of these exchanges can be enforced by the law (Simmel, 1950).
Gratitude is, according to Simmel, a supplement of the legal order. In
relationships that lie outside the realm of the law – and this applies to the
entire network of informal social ties between human beings – gratitude acts as
the force that binds people to one another in an informal social contract.
Without the moral obligation implied in gratitude, there would be no basis for
trust and endurable social relationships.


Finally, one can wonder why the informal contract generated
by reciprocity is so effective in creating the social cement of society. The
answer lies in the sublime reconciliation of individual and social interests
resulting from it. Reciprocity represents the elegant combination of
self-interested concerns with the requirements of social life. As Marcel Mauss
said: ‘Material and moral life, and exchange, function. in a form that is both
disinterested and obligatory’ (Mauss, 1990: 33). According to Mauss, generosity
and self-interest are linked in the act of gift-giving. The thought that
altruism and egoism are not contradictory in gift-giving is highly
illuminating. Gifts have the superb characteristic of being at the same time
free and obligatory, altruistic and self-oriented. It is exactly this
doublesidedness of the gift that makes it such a fortunate solution for the
fragility and insecurity inherent in any newly developing social relationship.




We have seen that there is an endless variation in the
objects used for gifts, the occasions at which gifts are given and the rituals
surrounding gift-giving, and that there are huge cultural differences in each
of these aspects of the gift. Moreover, the spirit of the gift varies from
disinterested generosity to the seeking of personal gain, with numerous shades
and gradations in-between. Therefore, my first conclusion is that the gift does
not exist, in the sense that there is not one general, unequivocal and
non-ambiguous sense in which to understand the gift.

Second, there is nothing inherent in the gift that makes it
morally good or bad. Gifts can help to maintain social ties between shrewd
business partners lusting for money and power, or those who have outright
criminal intentions, as well as between those striving to realize some noble
aim or collective interest. Gifts can be altruistic and agonistic, beneficial
as well as detrimental. The moral meaning of the gift depends on the nature of
the social relationship within which it is given, and on the conscious and
unconscious purposes and motives of those involved in that relationship.


A third conclusion, then, concerns the nature of social
relationships and their connection to the spirit of the gift. I described four
basic types of relationships between human beings, respectively based on
community, authority, equality and market, and stated that each of these four
relational models corresponds to a specific category of motives to give.

My fourth conclusion pertains to the principle of
reciprocity underlying the gift. Five elements of reciprocity seem to determine
its supreme efficacy: its survival value, the recognition of the other, the
three obligations implied in it, the moral bond it creates and finally, the
combination of altruistic and self-oriented concerns represented in it. The
different assumptions about human nature underlying anti-utilitarianism and
utilitarianism do not exclude each other. Human beings are both generous and calculative,
sometimes even both at the same time. The gift reflects a multi-purpose
symbolic ‘utility’ (Khalil, 1997) that transcends both utilitarianism and


Like the gift, reciprocity is not morally good in and of
itself: reciprocal actions do not necessarily lead to a better society.
Moreover, reciprocity not only means that gifts are followed by counter-gifts,
but it can also take the negative form of revenge answered by counter-revenge:
an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth (Gouldner, 1973). As Frans de Waal
(1996: 136) rightly observes: ‘Reciprocity can exist without morality; there
can be no morality without reciprocity.’


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